Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Rose by Any Other Name...

Sorry I have been absent for so long, fair readers, but I return to you with a victorious new title: Dr. ScienceandtheCity! Now that the thesis writing is over, the science can re-commence.

Interesting news comes to us from all over the interwebs, that the US Corn Refiners Association (USCRA) has petitioned the FDA to change the name of "High fructose corn syrup" to "Corn sugar." This move angers many who are against the corn industry and highly processed foods, many of which contain this highly processed sweetener. HFCS has been in the news many times before, and has been covered previously on this blog.

Although HFCS is, as BoingBoing points out, not particularly high in fructose and so not really well named, this name change is obviously a rebranding effort by HFCS producers now that the majority of Americans think that HFCS is not desirable in their food. In spite of its already misleading name, allowing the USCRA to rename corn syrup is just allowing them to further confuse an already confused food-consuming populace.

HFCS is made by milling and processing corn to produce corn starch, then further processing this starch into syrup by breaking up the starch into its component sugars with the enzymes alpha-amylase and glucoamylase. This corn syrup is composed mostly of glucose, a mono-saccharide. Xylose isomerase is then added, which is an enzyme that converts the glucose into fructose, another mono-saccharide. The syrup is now about 42% glucose, and it is subjected to liquid chromatography to further purify the fructose-rich portion so that is it about 90% fructose. This syrup, now called HFCS 90, is then back blended with higher-glucose syrups to the desired fructose concentration (usually 42 or 55%). There are also several other filtration and purification steps that I have left out.

Of course, any refined sugar is bad for you in excess. Some groups have called for banning HFCS, but I think that's going too far. Far be it from me to say the government should tell us all what to eat. So, what is so bad about HFCS, and why is it seemingly in everything?

Let's be clear: HFCS, no matter what it is called, is bad news. In terms of health effects, it has been linked to obesity over the course of the past three decades that it has been in use (1), and studies in laboratory animals have suggested that it is less healthy than sucrose (2) (table sugar), although it remains to be seen if HFCS is any worse than any other refined sweetener in humans. It has also been linked to mercury contamination, possibly from the manufacturing process. However, no refined sweetener is good for you in excess, and eating too much sugar of any kind can increase your risk of diabetes. From a health standpoint, I don't think a little HFCS is going to make you sick. The problem is, it's in almost every type of processed food, so Americans have trouble eating just a little bit of HFCS. Because it is so cheap, some suggest that this causes overconsumption of HFCS-sweetened foods (a bottle of soda is often cheaper than a bottle of a healthier beverage).

Why is HFCS so prevalent? There is a simple answer: it's cheap. However, as with most things, there is also a more complicated answer. The root cause of HFCS's inexpensiveness, and thus its overuse, is grossly bloated corn subsidies paid to the one or two companies that control all of the corn production in the US as well as tariffs on import of sugar. In effect, US taxpayers are paying to subsidize something that has become so overused that it makes us sick. However, another effect of these subsidies is to allow us all to enjoy cheap beef, dairy and processed foods, which most Americans like. The issues surrounding the politics of the corn industry are worth discussing, but are too complex for me to to justice to  here, so I'll leave that for another post.

So, what can we do? The only real solution to this problem is to educate and encourage consumers to purchase more non-processed foods and also to cut corn subsidies. The first part of this plan is already at work. More and more people are paying attention to what they purchase and eat. The USCRA's response is to try to pull the wool over our eyes one more time by renaming HFCS, but consumers have already been tipped off. Hopefully public pressure to stop our tax money from funding this questionably ethical business is on the horizon, as well as a solid federally-funded nutrition education program in all of our public schools. After all, HFCS, by any other name, still tastes as sweet, and still is bad for all of us.

(1) Hilary Parker (March 22, 2010). "A sweet problem: Princeton researchers find that high-fructose corn syrup prompts considerably more weight gain". Princeton University.
(2) Hilary Parker (March 22, 2010). "A sweet problem: Princeton researchers find that high-fructose corn syrup prompts considerably more weight gain". Princeton Unveristy.

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